- On A&E’s documentary series “Undercover High,” seven adults posed as students for a semester in a Kansas high school.
- Some had only graduated five years ago, and they still saw many differences in what daily life is like for high-schoolers today.
- Cell phone use is rampant — and dangerous. Teachers have less control than ever. But kids still just want someone to talk to.
High school is nothing like it used to be.
That’s the message of “Undercover High,” a documentary series on A&E that follows seven adults who pose as students for a whole semester at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas.
The undercover students, aged 21 to 26 when the show was filmed last year, took classes, joined clubs, and saw firsthand the struggles teenagers go through in their everyday lives. Even for the participants who graduated as little as five years ago, their return to high school was completely different than their first time around.
Here are a few seven things the undercover students learned about high-schoolers that most adults don’t realize:
Social media has completely changed the game
Social media has had a profound impact on the daily lives of teenagers. Students are always plugged in, introducing unrelenting pressure to maintain their social-media presences around the clock.
“The kinds of challenges that I experienced in high school along with my peers are now 24/7 issues because of technology, computers, cell phones, and social media,” Shane Feldman, an undercover student who graduated from high school in 2012, told Business Insider. “There’s no real escape.”
Teachers have less control than ever
Social media isn’t just an after-school phenomenon. The undercover students were shocked to observe that in many Highland Park classrooms, the majority of students were on their phones for most of the time.
“You’re not supposed to have your phone out, but honestly, we don’t care,” one student said.
Beryl New, the principal of Highland Park when the show was filmed, said although social media sites are blocked on the school’s network, they are helpless to stop students from accessing them on their own devices. And teachers said it was a daily struggle to get students to focus on classwork.
Bullying doesn’t stop when the final bell rings
Another downside to technological advances is that bullying has turned into a 24/7 activity.
Worse yet, it’s almost impossible for teachers and school staff to police cyberbullying, as incidents that start in the classroom can reverberate around the school within moments and continue snowballing at home.
“Back in the day, if a child was going to be bullied, it might be one person, one incident that happens on the playground or while you’re waiting on the bus. It can be resolved and it’s pretty much the end of it,” New, the Highland Park principal, told Business Insider.
“Now it can be one person has an issue with one person and everybody else chimes in, and by the time it gets to the next day someone wants to fight, someone’s not going to school, someone is threatening suicide. It took something singular, granular even, and it’s just ballooned over night until it becomes a major issue.”
Girls are constantly pressured to share sexual images of themselves
The undercover students discovered that female students face a unique struggle at school — they are frequently pressured into sharing risqué images of themselves with other students.
“It’s something that’s normal for them, posting promiscuous pictures of themselves and rating themselves based on what others think and like off social media,” undercover student Nicolette told Business Insider.
The consequences of such pressure can be devastating for girls, as in cases in which the images leak online. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson many students have to learn the hard way.
“The girls that get exposed and stuff, they’re like, the freshman girls,” a female Highland Park student said in one episode of the show. “They’re, like, really dumb, and they’ll just like send stuff to just about anyone that asks for it.”
They are struggling with depression in record numbers
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that thanks to the advent of smartphones and social media, depression and suicide rates are skyrocketing among American teenagers.
Part of the reason is because social media can seem to quantify exactly how popular students are and where they fall on the social totem pole.
“It’s not just your image at school that you have to uphold, like what kind of shoes you’re wearing, what brand are you wearing, what kind of backpack do you have,” Nicolette told Business Insider.
“Now you have to uphold this image on social media: how many likes do you have, how many hearts do you have, who are you following, how many followers. And it’s just doubled the impact of what it was before.”
Another undercover student, a youth pastor named Daniel, said it’s easy for students to take personally the responses they get to a social-media post.
“Their self-value is attached to social media. It’s dependent on how many likes they get on a photo,” he told Business Insider. “That can be very troubling for a student, especially if no one likes someone’s photo.”
Teen pregnancy isn’t what it used to be
One undercover student, a 22-year-old named Nicolette, said that when she became pregnant in high school, “it was very taboo,” and that she was “ostracized.”
“A lot of people were telling me, ‘Oh, your life is over, you’re not going to be able to go to college, you’re going to drop out of high school.’ I didn’t feel supported at all,” she told Business Insider.
Her experience at Highland Park was completely different, however.
“This school had a daycare, a program implemented to help those students, teenagers who were going through pregnancy or had children, so that they could finish their education,” she told Business Insider.
The school’s changing attitudes toward teen pregnancy inspired Nicolette to create a group to lend support to female students who are pregnant or were supporting children.
And most of all, they just want someone to talk to
Some of the most important connections the undercover students made were with “problem children” — students who were disruptive in class, didn’t have the focus or energy to do their work, and were at risk of not graduating.
Over the course of the semester the participants helped get to the root of their struggles, whether they be a troubling home life, relationship problems, fears about their future, questions about their sexuality, or personal tragedy.
“What I saw going back to high school, more than anything, was an alarming disconnect between teenagers and adults today. There’s just a growing disconnect. Most adults don’t have any clue what teenagers are going through today,” Feldman told Business Insider.
“They are craving for adults to understand them and see them for who they are and the struggles they are facing,” he continued. “I don’t think teachers and parents, respectfully, understand what they are facing.”
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